As a young boy, Bentley Cheechoo would sit along the shores of the Moose River and listen to Elders share their knowledge.
This is how he first learned about treaties.
Cheechoo, 72, grew up in Moose Factory. Today he lives in Thunder Bay. As a Knowledge Keeper, he talks at various events about what treaties are and how they came about. His main focus is Treaty 9, the James Bay Treaty.
“What I do (is) I go through the treaty, what the treaty meant to our people,” he said. “And then try to give a perspective from the other side because I don’t really know what the other side was thinking, I can only speculate what their thinking was going through the process.”
Cheechoo is a past deputy grand chief and grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and a former Constance Lake First Nation chief. He is now semi-retired.
Knowledge Keeper is not a title, Cheechoo pointed out, and the knowledge about treaties mainly passes down through a family.
“My father, grandfather and probably a great-grandfather would talk to the siblings, the children, about the treaty. And the siblings would then listen and when they have their own children, they teach their children what the treaty was all about,” he explained. “Same goes with every family. There’s a knowledge of understanding what the treaties are about.”
Not as much information about treaties is being passed on, he said. When information is needed, people call Cheechoo.
Treaty 9 was first signed in 1905 and 1906 between Northern Ontario First Nations, the Canadian government and the provincial government. In 1929 and 1930, adhesions were made to the treaty.
The James Bay Treaty covers 90,000 square miles in Northern Ontario. It includes Timmins, which is situated on the traditional lands of Mattagami First Nation. For Indigenous people, it promised $4 each annually. The annual payment remains the same today.
For the Crown, the treaty was a way to open the lands for "settlement, immigration, trade, travel, mining and lumbering" and other purposes, according to the treaty texts.
For Cheechoo, a treaty is an agreement between two parties.
“Treaty is a living document. It’s not that something that died in 1905,” he said. “Treaty 9 is still alive. We need to sit down and talk about the treaty, how to move forward.”
Indigenous people never said they wanted the government to govern on their land and the treaty was used as a way to get the land from Indigenous people, Cheechoo said.
“Everybody else has benefited except us. This was our land … and the only way to get it from us was the land had to be ceded from Native people," he said. “What the treaty did to us was take our people, push them aside.”
He said when Indigenous people were told they were going to live on the reserve, it took away their right to hunt and live off the land.
“In those days, it was called rations, what we know as welfare today. We started depending on them. We were very independent people. We didn’t depend on welfare, we didn’t depend on anything there.”
Cheechoo recalled how his uncle was charged for trapping and his father was charged for setting a net. The family won both cases but it was a violation of the treaty, he said.
“I can’t count how many people were jailed or whatever they killed (during hunting) was seized,” he said. “The legal system is getting to be understanding of what transpired. They have to learn, too, because they weren’t there. The lawyers and the judges that we have now, they weren’t there, they have to learn.”
Cheechoo noted it wasn’t “all government’s fault” but social issues arise when people are “pushed on to reserves.” Education is also important as there are many misconceptions, he said.
“People say, ‘Well, how much do you get every month from the government?’ I say I get nothing. They say, ‘I heard you guys get a cheque every month,’ I said I wish. It’s not how it works. People need to understand that.”
He said the governments and Indigenous people should hold a meeting on every traditional territory and talk about how to reconcile and honour the agreement.
“They need to sit down and come up with a plan,” he said. “No matter whether you’re Native or not, it can’t go on."
There should be a “healthy discussion” and a “responsible way” to move forward and young people need to be involved because they’re the ones who will be living with it in the long run, he said.
“This is the time now for us to sit down and let us find a way on going forward,” said Cheechoo. “Not to put anything written in stone at this time but to put something in place, make it so that the world views start coming together.”